Sunday 20, May

Shakespeare theatre for Merseyside

Lovers of Shakespeare have long made pilgrimages to Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe theatre in London.

Prescot's original playhouse was built in 1593 - around the time the Bard wrote Richard III - possibly as a base for actors who had left London when theatres were shut during the plague.

"It's very hotly contested and there's lots of reasons for thinking he might have [visited], but no evidence at all," says Ian Tabbron, interim chief executive of the Shakespeare North Trust.

"So that's something for academics to fight over and I hope one day somebody will find a bit of paper that says Shakespeare was here."

The original theatre is thought to have been built with the backing of the Earls of Derby, who lived at nearby Knowsley Hall. They sponsored an acting troupe called Lord Strange's Men, who performed some of Shakespeare's earliest plays.

Mr Tabbron says: "There's a good logic and rationale for looking to construct something to honour Shakespeare in the north-west.

"We're talking about the 'Bard triangle', with Stratford, the Globe on the South Bank and the Prescot Playhouse as the third hub of Shakespearean activity."

No designs of the original Prescot theatre have survived, so the new version is being built to plans for a court theatre drawn up in 1629 by architect Inigo Jones.

"I'm hoping the atmosphere will be quite magical," Mr Tabbron says. "It won't be lit by candlelight all the time - there will also be the opportunity to use modern technology.

"But you can imagine this slightly romantic wooden box with flickering candlelight, a calico ceiling and this painted classical backdrop. It creates a fantastically theatrical atmosphere before the entertainers even step onto the stage."

And some of the timber could come from the replica Elizabethan theatre that was built for the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love - which Dame Judi Dench, who appeared in the film and is one of the new venue's patrons, donated to the Shakespeare North Trust in 2009.

Other patrons include Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Paul McCartney and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The film set is currently in storage in eight shipping containers on the Knowsley Hall estate, which is also home to Knowsley Safari Park.

"I think it's guarded by lions and tigers and we keep the insurance down," jokes Professor Kathy Dacre of Rose Bruford College in London, who is chair of the Shakespeare North development board.

Prof Dacre grew up "a stone's throw" from the theatre and says the priority is to improve the area's fortunes through jobs, training and tourism.

"The main thing for me is to raise those educational standards and raise the social and economic regeneration," she says. "We all want to make a difference, and this will make a difference."

Education will be a major part of the mission - the venue will be the base for a master's degree in Shakespearean performance as well as a schools programme.

Unlike the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and the Globe, it will not create its own productions, instead hosting visiting companies.

Of the Shakespeare North funding, £5m has come from the government and £6m from Knowsley Council.

The last time the government published research into the most deprived boroughs in England, in 2015, Knowsley came top of the lists for people in low-income households and for low employment.

Ian Tabbron says the playhouse plan is at the heart of a wider regeneration scheme, and has already started encouraging local entrepreneurs.

A Shakespeare-inspired micropub named The Bard Prescot opened in February, and there a Shakespeare-themed hotel is also in the works.

"I'm sure people will be sceptical about why what appears to be a high-end artistic elitist palace should be built in a place which has many challenges," Mr Tabbron says. "Knowsley has many challenges.

"But, actually, if you look into the vision and objectives for this project, everything is about inclusion and everything is about inclusive growth for Knowsley. And we will be using the research that we've done to set targets for inclusion.

"We will not fail. But if we were not to get a wide range of people using this and a wide range of people supporting the case for investment and growth here then we would have failed."

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